Long before Serena Williams got into it with the umpire, before Louis C.K., Al Franken and Matt Lauer, there was a time when a woman suspected of adultery would be simply boiled alive. And the man who ordered her death? Not even a parking ticket. Romans instead celebrated Constantine the Great.
That’s just one disturbing nugget in “The Indignities of Being a Woman,” an 8½ hour audiobook started when Harvey Weinstein still ruled Hollywood but arriving in the heart of the #MeToo era. Comedians Merrill Markoe and Megan Koester wrote and recorded “Indignities” for Audible.
The book charts the gender gap over the ages or, from Adam and Eve to Aéropostale. And the authors do it with more than a dab of gallows humor, delivering even some of the harshest realities with a wry punchline.
Because, as Markoe puts it, “once you can make a joke about a thing, you have defanged it.”
Markoe, 70, is most famous for being the first head writer of the “Late Night With David Letterman” show in the 1980s, but she’s also written novels and essays and made some of the best dog videos on the Internet. Her longtime partner, former Wall of Voodoo singer Andy Prieboy, recorded a theme for “Indignities.” Koester, 35, is a comedian and writer who has written eloquently about alcoholism and her bizarre, failed marriage. Three years ago, on assignment for Gawker, she tried to approach comics walking the carpet at Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival to ask them about rumors of Louis C.K.’s sexually inappropriate behavior. That did not go well.
Naturally, Koester and Markoe met on Twitter.
“She wanted to write a piece about me,” said Markoe, who tends to underplay her role in revolutionizing late night television. “And I said, ‘I’ve got nothing.’ ”
“I hounded her for a year and she refused,’ Koester says. “She didn’t care that I needed that $400.”
But they started talking, and Markoe, despite her reservations, began to riff with Koester on the idea that became “Indignities.”
“I hadn’t worked with her before . . . and it’s a good way to really screw up a friendship,” Markoe says. “And she was talking about a podcast and isn’t there some natural limit to how many podcasts there can be on one planet at one time? I said no and then I sat around and thought, ‘What am I doing anyway?’”
The pair eventually decided to pack the book with a real history, though peppered with asides.
In a section on religion, Markoe details a fertility ritual in ancient Hinduism in which a horse is sacrificed and a woman is then required to have sex with that dead horse. Markoe’s voice over: “A big joke from that time must have gone: “Hey, Ananya … good news and bad news! The rajah wanted to marry you. You will have riches. You will be the Queen. The bad news? It’s time for Ashvamedha.”
“I had a job recently punching up Sheryl Sandberg’s book on grief, and I was paid to write jokes,” Markoe says. “I learned with patience I can find a joke about anything. So I’ve been trying to find the same thing here.”
That’s always been Koester’s approach as well. Her essays — of drinking until she blacked out, of marrying “a hirsute Australian with a skin condition” whom she met in an Internet chat-room devoted to the obscure indie band Quasi — are funny, bare train wrecks and often uncomfortably honest. She says her personal life is just one of the things that separates her from Markoe. When asked whether she is also a vegetarian, Koester at first says yes and then says she will eat meat if it’s free.
“I guess the difference between us is she’s a multi Emmy-winner who owns a house and I just recently stopped sleeping in a closet,” Koester says.
Audible has worked with comedians, including Robin Williams, Doug Stanhope and, most recently, David Spade. But publisher Beth Anderson says that the company has watched successful projects elsewhere with Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling and thought it was time to do something ambitious with female comedians. She also appreciates the 35-year age gap between Markoe and Koester.
“I remember being a kid and listening to the battles of the ERA,” she says. “A lot of our customers, that would be ancient history.”
But the “indignities,” Anderson says, are timeless.
“It’s sort of a good news, bad news story,” she says. “I wish this kind of discrimination and misuse of women were all behind us, but the fact that it just keeps coming out is terrible. It does make this program very timely.”
For “Indignities,” the authors split the workload by having Markoe take on “zero to 1900,” starting in Ancient Greece and Rome when there simply were no real records of women to the point where women were acknowledged enough to have their mouths “crushed with burned bricks” for certain offenses. She also found herself stumbling upon practices that sounded almost too absurd to be true. At one point during the late Victorian period, men collected their lovers’ pubic hairs and kept them as a souvenir.
“At St. Andews University in Scotland, they have a snuff box full of the pubic hair of King George IV’s mistress . . . a particularly bad place to keep it,” Markoe voices on the book. “I mean, what if you forget for a second and reach for the snuff?”
Koester took on the 20th century and contemporary society. She said she was stunned to learn that even Jane Curtin, one of the original cast members of “Saturday Night Live,” couldn’t get a credit card without her husband’s signing for her because she was technically a contracted worker in 1975. She also wrote about the gender pay gap and how much less women are represented in government. Koester had spent months complaining about Donald Trump’s rise. As she and Markoe worked, she realized it made perfect sense.
“Women have been a nonhuman entity for so many centuries,” she said.
In that spirit, Koester isn’t expecting “Indiginities” to do much to change things.
“I feel like we’re pretty much preaching to the choir here. I don’t think somebody who is a MAGA [Make American Great Again] person is going to identify with us. It will be received well by our target demographic, which is women who think women are people,” Koester says.